Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Three Book Reviews: Robert Calder, Marie Elyse St. George, and Susan Harris

“A Hero for the Americas: The Legend of Gonzalo Guerrero”
by Robert Calder
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-780889-775091   

Robert Calder's A Hero for the Americas: The Legend of Gonzalo Guerrero is an impeccably-researched and compelling nonfiction title offering much to ingest, enjoy, and learn from. The GG award-winning author and Emeritus Professor (U of S) came to his subject as a frequent traveler to the Yucatán Peninsula, where the Spanish-born sailor Gonzalo Guerrero and numerous other conquistadors believed they'd find their fortunes.  

A sculpture of Guerrero, "a powerful figure dressed as a Mayan warrior," first piqued Calder's interest in the enigmatic 16th Century hero, and indeed, Guerrero's relatively unsung story (as compared to that of fellow conquistador, Hernán Cortés) has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster: adventure, battles, romance, and legacy.

The robust Andalusian sailor defied his country and Catholic religion after being shipwrecked (of nineteen, only Guerrero and fellow Spaniard Jerónimo de Aguilar survived) off the Yucatán Peninsula in 1512. Guerrero was enslaved by a Mayan chief; earned the tribe's respect; married the chief's daughter; became a Chactemal military captain; and fathered the first mestizaje children in Mexican history.

There's more. Both Aguilar and Guerrero lived in Mayan captivity for seven years before the former happily reunited with the eventual Aztec-conquering Cortés, on Cozumel. Aguilar told an incredulous Cortés about their countryman who'd embraced Mayan culture, adopting everything from their language to unique tribal piercings and tattoos. Through Aguilar, Cortés compelled the "Spaniard-turned-Maya" to rejoin his countrymen, and Guerrero politely but definitively refused.

Calder writes that Guerrero's legend as both a warrior and a father are integral. He explains that he hopes to help readers "trace [Guerrero's] path through the tumultuous and quickly changing life of fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Spain and of the New World," while allowing that the hero's story straddles "the unstable border between history and fiction, between fact and folklore," as Guerrero left no written account of his experience. Little's even known of his death, though it's suspected he died in Honduras, and his family likely "melted into the jungle".

While Guerrero's definitely the star of this story, the book's also ripe with information on myriad subjects, including the history of maize; Queen Isabella's admission that "she only had two baths in her life;" the historical Mayan practice of flattening a newborn's head between two boards for several months "to [produce] a permanent sloping forehead and elongated skull … considered a mark of the ruling class;" and the Cortés-Malinche story. Malinche was the Nahua slave with the "aristocratic bearing" who was "given" to Cortés, acted as his interpreter, bore his son, and greatly aided in the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. In contrast, Guerrero was "recast as the heroic opponent of Spanish hegemony".

Calder illuminates a part of Mexican history that's long lived in the shadows: the history of the mestizos, who make up 60% of Mexico's population. This book ably demonstrates why a "plurality of perspectives" is critical, and while it should almost be required reading for all beach tourists in Mexico, it's a lesson we can also take to heart in Canada.      

 "An Assortment: Darkly Delicious Literary & Visual Oddments"
by Marie Elyse St. George
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-83-6

The enticing title of Marie Elyse St. George's latest book says it all. Delve into this tickle trunk of poems, stories (both fictions and truths), drawings, paintings, and cartoons, plus a tribute to now long-passed writer Anne Szumigalski, and you'll indeed find something darkly delicious to make you smile, laugh, and think.

Saskatoon's St. George has earned an esteemed reputation as both a visual artist and a writer, and a career highlight's been her 1995 poetry and art collaboration (with close friend Szumigalski) Voice, which resulted in both an exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery and a book which garnered the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1995. She's also collaborated with poet Patrick Lane, provided art for the covers of numerous literary journals and books, and published an award-winning memoir.

While reading An Assortment: Darkly Delicious Literary & Visual Oddments, I procured an image of a young girl skipping through a field of wildflowers, plucking blossoms here and there for an atypical bouquet. This image was no doubt hastened by the book's cover image–a photo of the author as a girl beneath what I'm guessing's a rose arbour–and by the tantalizing whimsy of both the artwork (ie: the full-colour "Origin of Angels") and the clever humour in the text.

To read St. George is to leap into worlds that include opinionated silver fox stoles who malign the fact that "Times have changed," and art openings and fashion are not what they once were: "The pretty young ladies in the formal gowns you so admire are art students wearing '40s and '50s clothes as a comment on continuing sexism."  In the story "Who Was That Masked Dog?" a precocious child converses with a guard dog who speaks in the "hearty, courteous manner of Teddy Roosevelt," and in "Feeding Amelia" we learn that a talking shark has eaten Amelia Earhart: "I absorbed her spirit and courage, but I must say, her leather coat and boots were quite indigestible".    

In her poetry, as well, St. George gifts inanimate objects with life. Words themselves can be "rude    they elbow their way/in front of the correct ones and make you look a fool" or they can "spread their shimmering skirts/fold their hands and smile fondly". In her poem "Some Secondhand Clothes" we read that the subjects in the title "resent being bundled from their cozy closets".

I particularly enjoyed hilarious "Hazel," in the opening story, who endures her husband's loathsome wilderness expeditions and has learned a plethora of strange skills, including "how to use wild herbs to season a ragout of grasshoppers".
The fleeting nature of inspiration, a stillborn fraternal twin, soldiers, the challenges associated with aging, and the influence of animals-from mice to grey foxes to "elephants listening to lies they tell themselves"-are all subjects that walk through the wildflower fields with that imaginative little girl, who grew to be a talented writer and artist. This entertaining "amalgam of fantasy and reality" is well worth the read.        
 “Christmas A to Z”
by Susan Harris
Published by White Lily Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.00  ISBN 978-0-9949869-1-7

Christmas. Even the very youngest children get caught up in the excitement–the gifts, the tree, and of course, Santa Claus–and to help celebrate and explain some of the season's symbols, celebrations, and emotions, Saskatchewan writer Susan Harris has added to her shelf of children's books with a new title, the brightly illustrated Christmas A to Z. It's important to note that this is a secular Christmas alphabet book; Harris previously published An Alphabet of the First Christmas: A Christian Alphabet Book, as well as several other titles for young children.

The book begins with a broad dedication: "For boys and girls who love Christmas," and ends with a sweet letter from Harris to her young readers. The author uses a gentle tone to address her "Little Friend[s]," and her experience as a former teacher comes across in the letter's engaging text. "Did you know that it does not snow in some countries? I grew up in the country of Trinidad, which is an island, and it does not snow there," she writes. "Do you have a favourite present you received for Christmas, Little Friend? Mine was a little doll whom I named Jane."  

This is not a busy book, which will be appealing for those just learning to read, and for the adults who may be sharing this story with youngsters. The twenty-six alphabet pages contain little text, the letters and definitions appears in a large black font, and there is much white space surrounding the pictures.  

As a writer myself, I'm always interested in what alphabet book authors choose to represent each letter. In Harris's book, A is for Antlers. They "look like sticks on the heads of deer but they are really bony growths," we read and learn. On this page–and several others–Harris includes information that helps readers better understand the word selected to represent the letter. Bells are significant because "churches used to ring their big bells on Christmas Day," she writes. The word for V is Village: "A village is a small group of houses in the countryside. 'Christmas Villages' are decorations which started off as nativity scenes but now include many different kinds of ornaments".

It's easy to bemoan how commercialized Christmas has become, thus it's refreshing to read–on the G page–that "A gift is something a person gives to someone else without expecting anything in return." Q is always a challenging letter, and Harris wisely addresses it with the word Quaint: "Quaint means nice in an old-fashioned way". And what of Z? "Zzzz is the sound of snoring while asleep. Happy, tired boys and girls fall asleep quickly after the excitement of Christmas Day." Indeed they do.

The last page features an image of an undecorated tree, and here little ones are invited to use their own imaginations with crayons or markers.  

Sharing this book with youngsters will merrily elucidate some of the symbols and practices surrounding Christmas. It may even increase excitement for The Big Day. Enjoy!